Thursday, November 20, 2008

The morning after

Speculations and spins always fly whenever something takes everyone by surprise. Thus did the Senate “coup” which replaced Manuel Villar as its president with 84-year old Juan Ponce Enrile come to most everyone.

One paper bannered an Erap hand in the coup, banking only on the supposed membership of Enrile in the latter’s party, and the perceived “closeness” of the two, which isn’t exactly true. They are friends, but they are not close. Even when only the two of them survived the Cory juggernaut in the first elections under the 1987 Constitution that re-installed a two-chamber Congress, they were not that close. Estrada, who tries to be friendly with everybody, and forgives anyone and everyone at the drop of a tear, fake or feigned, knew the political value of the wise Ponce Enrile, so that even if the latter did not support his presidential run in 1998, he reached out. He needed the cooperation of the Senate, and so politically, he bedded even with other unlikely political “friends” as Miriam Defensor Santiago. That paper cited an “administration senator” as its source, but the guy, who can easily be identified by any political observer, was also just speculating.

Truth is, Erap never knew until the night before, when his son Jinggoy told him. Did he inform his friend Manny V, the guy he made speaker, also the guy who impeached him with one dramatic bang of his speaker’s gavel? Obviously not.

Our friend and colleague Ellen Tordesillas probably had the closest narration of the events that led to Villar’s fall from the Senate presidency. Even speculations about cha-cha, and Villar’s supposed hand in Jocjoc’s arrest are all drivel, insofar as they are related to the latest Senate golpe.

Uneasy lies the crown, always, of the Senate presidency’s head. My friend Caloy Padilla remembers history when he cites Manuel Roxas’ ouster from the speakership and his quote “fell from the rostrum into the arms of the people”. My friend Caloy insults the memory of Mar’s lolo by making such odious comparison. Manuel Roxas was far more eloquent (the late Speaker Pepito Laurel, Caloy’s mentor as much as mine, described him as such a “great and fiery orator” and a sharp mind) than the head of the Nacionalista Party now. And no historian has ever attributed “conflict of interest” or “self-dealing” or some other such pecuniary peccadilloes to the first elected president of the Republic. Neither his son, Gerardo, who also became a highly respected senator of the realm. And Mar of the third generation does not self-deal either, nor has he ever been accused of dipping his fingers into the “kaban ng bayan”.

With stealth and cunning purpose did Manuel Villar deal with the administration caboodle in the Senate immediately after he was re-elected to the Senate as an adopted candidate of the Genuine Opposition a year and six months ago. He refused to sit down with his GO team-mates, Lacson and Legarda, nor oppositionists Roxas, Madrigal, Biazon, Aquino and Pimentel to discuss the politics of a chamber where they had an inch of a majority, assuming he and fellow “independent” Kiko Pangilinan, and Alan Peter Cayetano’s sister, would go on board. Even after Nene Pimentel, the initial candidate of the oppositionists, was no longer in the running. He chose his boys --- Alan Peter and Chiz Escudero, and bedded them with his Wednesday Group led by Joker Arroyo, then talked turkey with JPE, Angara, and Gordon. Then they presented their combination of disparate forces to the stinking palace beside the stinking river, and got imprimatur, along with which came the votes of Lapid, Revilla, Zubiri and Miriam. All along of course, he was briefing Erap, and promised the prestigious if useless role of “President Pro-tempore” to son Jinggoy. It was a brilliant political move --- leaving out his perceived presidential competitors out in the cold.

So don’t give the public any of that drivel, Gilbert Remulla, (spokesman of Manny Villar), about your boss’ order of arrest for Jocjoc, and the resumption of the fertilizer scam hearings. Your boss tarried and tarried in doing all these, and only when his indecision became obvious, and some other senators in caucus started challenging such indecision, did he act. Ask your Joker. He knows.

Going back to my friend Caloy’s recollection of the first Manuel A. Roxas, he eventually became Senate President as an ally of Manuel Luis Quezon, president of the Commonwealth when the Pacific war broke out. After the war and a brief interregnum before the elections that pitted him against MLQ’s successor, the taciturn Sergio Osmena Sr. of Cebu, Roxas was yet technically the Senate President. So was the great MLQ when he was elected president. So was Ferdinand Marcos, who stole the senate presidency from Amang Rodriguez past an unsuspecting Diosdado Macapagal, and from that perch, challenged the latter and won. But someone who fell from his perch, Senate President Jose Avelino of Samar and Bulacan, challenged his president, Elpidio Quirino, put up his own Avelino wing of the Liberal Party, and lost miserably in 1949. Why did Avelino place a miserable third, after Quirino and Laurel of the Nacionalistas, even if he was representing the Roxas loyalists of the Liberal Party, as he claimed? “What are we in power for?”, his famous quote. In truth, even Avelino did not do anything the likes of which Manny Villar is accused of these days. His only fault was political candor, spoken in Castillian, “Para que estamos en poder?” to party-mates, but an intrepid journalist scooped him. And in those days, you couldn’t buy reporters off.

The presidency of the Senate was no longer as important a vantage point from which to aim at the presidency after Cory Aquino was installed by people power. Salonga fell from his rostrum, and a year later, also lost his presidential bid. Maceda lost his senate crown, and later lost his bid for the mayoralty of Manila. Angara, who also lost the senate presidency, likewise lost his vice-presidential bid to then Sen. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Truth is, the senators compared Villar with his immediate predecessor, Frank Drilon, who steered the chamber in far better manner. Villar’s leadership begins and ends in a caucus, eschewing floor debates, very boardroom, very “tayo-tayo”. And the minority, as well as those in the majority with whom he was not too hunky-dory, always felt left out. The resentments already seethed in the second quarter of 2008.

Then the C-5 double insertion came up, which Ping Lacson thought was a DBM trick to impound savings for the Dona and/or Andaya to toy with. It turned out to be a smoking gun that led to the mystery of the road called C-5. When Jamby Madrigal got hold of documents from the DPWH, the mystery unravelled, and out came Villar’s self-dealing. In the wake of such devious manipulations, the Republic lost at least 1.2 billion pesos in consummated road right-of-way payments to Bro. Mike Velarde , because Manny Villar wanted the C-5 re-routed to another longer, more snake-like thoroughfare, each bend designed to pass through his corporation’s properties. And got paid for it too, again from the kaban ng bayan, more than another legislator, Ompong Plaza of Agusan del Sur, whose family properties were paid 4,000 per square meter versus 15,000 for Villar’s. And who negotiated with the DPWH, for and in behalf of the other property owners? Why, according to the documents, Manny Villar and his spouse, Cynthia, congresswoman of Las Pinas!

At that point, Villar’s numbers started to cave in. A senator from his side observed to a cabinet member in the Senate when the JPEPA was ratified after waiting for Jamby Madrigal’s expose in a privilege speech --- “open and shut”. To which the cabinet member replied, “Masyadong reckless”. (I heard it. This is a first person account. And they didn’t mind sharing their conversation with me in the gallery.)

“C-5 at Taga” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It gave reason to the senators increasingly disenchanted with Villar’s “leadership” style to plot and count numbers. The wonder of it all is how they managed to keep it a secret from Manny Villar and his staunch allies until the last minute. Probably that explains why the numbers were deliberately kept at just nine senators when the Senate resumed session on November 10. And after the bolantic encounter last week, the nine senators started to talk in earnest to the “soft-core” supporters of Villar, treading very carefully, practicing the same stealth with which Villar blacked them out in June of 2007.

Which is why Erap found out last. And the last 13th vote was ascertained only in the morning of the putsch. Lito Lapid was never “consulted”. Baka malaman pa ng Malacanang, and a monkey wrench is thrown. Kanya pala bumoto muna kay JPE, tapos binawi. Tulak nang puso, kabig ng Malacanang?

Now Villar’s media friends ascribe baser motives to the new majority. Par for the course. Squabbling daw over committee chairs. Perhaps a little wrangling here and there, because unlike in 2007, where the administration-opposition coalition was cobbled by Villar through chair-dealing, this was not, because there was a common purpose, and there was a need for absolute secrecy. Naturally, the spoils come after. In 2007, the spoils were partitioned before the presidency. Note that Allan Peter Cayetano was given the Blue Ribbon, plus education. Wow! And Pia Cayetano had Health, plus Environment, plus Accounts, plus Ethics. Wow again!

The political pot boils. Some are boiled, some are merely scalded.

* * *

The morning after, Manny Villar pushed through with a campaign stump. He invited the barangay chairpersons of the City of Manila to an eatery called Tramway in Quezon City. (One barangay chairman from the third district refused to go --- “Bakit, wala bang kainan sa Maynila?”, asked he.) Of Manila’s 900 barangay chairs, some 370 came, but the place overflowed with former barangay chairmen and kagawads who made sabit to their chairmen. In all, there must have been 800, packing the place, and many had to leave because the place had become an oven. Cynthia sobbed, recounting the fall of her husband from the Senate presidency. But Manny forced a smile, and preened about his latest survey numbers.

The chairmen chatted throughout, and favourite topic was C-5 at Taga! In the end, they waited for the envelope, but none was forthcoming. I guess that’s the problem when you’re filthy rich. Everyone comes expecting --- the envelope please!

O tempora, O mores!, the Romans would have rued. Such is the Philippine political system. No money, no honey, as the GI Joe’s would say. Ah, but Manny has plenty.